Chinese Perceptions of U.S. Engagement in the South China Sea

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 12

Beijing's 9 dotted U-Shap Line

In November 2002, China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea (SCS), laying a political foundation for the discussion of commercial cooperation between China and ASEAN countries as well as the long-term peace and stability in the region. Though the DOC has been criticized for a number of weaknesses (e.g. neither a binding treaty, nor a formal code of conduct), the signing of this document had helped keep the SCS relatively quiet for several years, at least prior to 2009. Yet, tensions have been on the rise in the past two years. In addition to the competing territorial claims from different parties, the United States is now also playing a role that Beijing sees as an effort to re-assert Washington into the regional strategic mix. The race to control the disputed islands by relevant parties is fuelled by the concern of China’s rise, yet Beijing perceives that Washington is tightening the rope to contain its traditional claims in the region.

Troubled Waters in the South China Sea

Since 2009, several major developments have stirred controversy in the SCS, and highlighted the difficulties of maintaining stability in the region. In mid-February 2009, the Philippines Congress passed a territorial Sea Baseline Bill, laying claim to Scarborough Shoal (sovereignty claimed by China) and a number of islands in the SCS. Another event was the clash on March 8, 2009 between Chinese vessels and the U.S. ocean surveillance ship “Impeccable” along the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claimed by China [1]. On May 6, 2009, Malaysia and Vietnam lodged a joint submission with the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the continental Shelf (CLCS). Vietnam also lodged a separate submission in relation to the northwestern part of the central SCS. These extended continental shelf submissions underscore existing disputes that have added an extra dimension to the claims.

2010 witnessed further escalation of tensions in the SCS, with the United States increasing its presence in the region, and with a series of U.S.-Sino spats over the SCS dispute. In March, as first reported by the Japanese and followed by U.S media outlets, Chinese officials told two visiting senior Obama administration officials that China would not tolerate any interference in the SCS, now part of China’s “core interest” of sovereignty. In July, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement at the 10th ASEAN regional forum (ARF) that the disputes over the highly sensitive SCS were a “leading diplomatic priority” and “pivotal to regional security.” This backdrop contributed to increasing concerns in Beijing, which saw Clinton’s statement as a signal that the United States had changed its neutral position on the SCS dispute and is now backing other claimant states, particularly Vietnam.

The tension in the SCS has continued to escalate this year with a series of events. Vietnam in May accused China of cutting the exploration cables of an oil survey ship. In a similar incident in June, it claimed a Chinese fishing boat had “intentionally rammed” the exploration cables of another of its boats. Yet, China insisted that its fishing boats were chased away by armed Vietnamese ships in the incident. According to China’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, the fishing net of one of the Chinese boats became tangled with the cables of a Vietnamese oil exploring vessel, which was operating in the waters claimed by China, and was dragged for more than an hour before it was cut free. China accused Vietnam of “gravely violating” its sovereignty and warned it to stop “all invasive activities.” In June, Vietnam held live-fire exercises in the SCS amid high tensions with China over disputed waters. Chinese state-media denounced the exercises as a military show of force to defy Beijing. Representatives of China and Vietnam met in Beijing on June 25, and agreed to resolve their maritime territorial disputes “peacefully.”

Standoffs have also taken place this year between Chinese and Philippine vessels. In March, two Chinese maritime surveillance ships reportedly ordered a Philippine survey ship away from an area called Reed Bank. The Philippines later sent in military aircraft. President of the Philippines Benigno Aquino’s office said on June 13 that it was renaming the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea,” as tensions with Beijing mount over the disputed area. Starting from May, the Philippine Navy has removed foreign marker posts that were placed on reefs and banks, part of the much-disputed Spratly group of islands. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would honour its mutual defence pact with Manila and offer the Philippines affordable weapons. While Washington is calling Beijing to lower the temperature, the United States and the Philippines are preparing to conduct joint military exercises.

China’s “Core Interest” vs. U.S.’s “National Interest”

The concern of the international community is that the Chinese, for the first time, labeled the SCS a “core interest,” on par with its interests in Taiwan and Tibet. Chinese scholars argue that China never publicly declared a “South China Sea = core interest” policy, it came first from Japanese media and was followed by U.S. journalists, serving as the subtext for the “U.S.-defends-freedom-of-navigation-in-the-South-China-Sea” story. Zhu Feng, a Chinese political scientist, clarified that the Chinese officials did use the term “core interest,” but the original text is that “the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea is the core interest of Chinese government,” which was misinterpreted by the media [2].

The Chinese interpretation of Secretary Clinton’s statement, that “United States has a national interest in resolving the claims,” is that the Obama Administration has changed its position on the SCS from being a neutral actor to being actively engaged. Indeed, at a Sino-U.S. workshop on the SCS in Hawaii in 2010, some scholars from think tanks like RAND, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies and Center for Naval Analysis argued that Clinton’s remarks may be in response to what many U.S. media report on China’s recent statement in March when Beijing defined the SCS as one of its “core interests.”

Perception Gaps on the “Freedom of Navigation” and Conflict Resolution Mechanisms

Many Chinese military officers and scholars have challenged Clinton’s calling “freedom of navigation in the sea” a U.S. “national interest.” A high-ranking Chinese military officer argued that freedom of navigation was never a problem in that region. Liu Jiangyong, an Asia-Pacific studies specialist at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, said he did not see any sense in people worrying about or interfering in matters that did not concern them. Wang Hanling, a specialist in maritime law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that China has never interfered in the normal activities of any ship crossing the SCS or any aircraft flying over it, especially those for commercial use “What the U.S. calls ‘national interest’ is not freedom of navigation but rather its presence in the Western Pacific, or military superiority and political influence, to be more specific,” Wang elaborated [3]. His comment stands for that of the majority of Chinese scholars.

The U.S. and Chinese contesting views on ‘freedom of navigation’ have resulted in several incidents in the EEZs of the Asia-Pacific region. The disagreements between US and China, and between costal states and user states in general, on the interpretations of the 1982 UNCLOS provisions generally relate to the exact presumed meaning of the terms in the convention, as well as the meaning of specific articles. For example, there are specific differences with regard to the meaning of ‘freedom’ of navigation and overflight in and above the EEZ, i.e., whether such freedoms can be limited by certain regulations—national, regional or international—or whether such freedoms are absolute.

China expressed concern over the United States’ increasing engagement in the SCS, adding that it opposes the internationalization of the maritime issue. China holds that the SCS issue is a dispute over sovereignty about territory and maritime rights between the relevant countries, and not an issue between China and the ASEAN, nor a regional or international issue. Some U.S. scholars argue that China’s opposition to the “internationalization” of the SCS issue is tantamount to an attempt to de-internationalize an international sea [4]. Once the South China Sea has been de-internationalized, China will be able to bring its strength to bear on the Southeast Asian countries and impose its own rules, rather than internationally accepted ones from international law on these waters.

In a workshop on U.S.-China relations on SCS issues in September 2010, some Chinese scholars tried to clarify the interpretation of “bilateral approach,” which China always insists on in solving conflict with relevant states [5]. In the context of SCS issues, China clearly prefers to solve islands sovereignty and maritime delimitation through direct negotiation with the countries involved. On non-traditional security issues, such as safety and security of sea lanes, anti-piracy, marine environmental protection, China is more open to multilateral approaches of cooperation. One best example is the DOC signed in 2002 and other regional agreements with ASEAN.

When Will China Clarify its Claim?

Among all these mentioned debates on “core interest,” “freedom of navigation” and “internationalization,” the “U-shape line” remains the most controversial and ambiguous issue between China and other claimant states. The original line, drawn by Chinese authorities in 1947, was composed of 11 dashes. Later the PRC left out two dashes in the Tonkin Gulf [6]. Beijing has not had any official declaration about the international and national legal values of the discontinuous dotted line. Before the Chinese government defined the U-shape line’s legal status, Chinese scholars had different or even contradictory explanations about the dotted line’s legal value at many international conferences. When China clarifies its claim is of great concern for not only other claimant states but for the whole international community. Indeed, it has become a nagging problem for Chinese foreign policy makers.

Turbulent Waves Ahead

With the latest escalation, both China and the United States blame each other for changing their positions on the SCS by referring to the SCS as a “core interest” and a “national interest,” respectively. “Freedom of navigation” helps the United States justify its increasing engagement in the SCS, while China reiterates that “freedom of navigation” was never infringed on in the SCS, and China shares the same concern with the United States over the safety and security of navigation through this region.

Though Washington proposes to mediate among the claimant states for the resolution of the SCS dispute, Beijing opposes the internalization of the SCS dispute, and insists on a bilateral approach to sovereignty and maritime delimitation. China remains open to a multilateral approach in some areas such as non-traditional security, however. The approach of ASEAN as a collective unit to negotiate with China does not apparently enjoy  consensus within the ASEAN itself, given that, apart from the four member states with overlapping claims with China, other ASEAN members may not want to risk ruining their relations with China. Above all, the most important and urgent agenda in this increasingly messy picture is when and how China will clarify its claim over the SCS.


[1] Since the United States is not an UNCLOS member, it treats other states’ EEZ as high sea.
[2] Zhu Feng, presentation at the Asia-Pacific Security and Defence Policies, The Second in a Series of International Workshops: Taking up IISS Shangri-La Dialogue Themes, November, 18, 2010.
[3] Li Xiaokun, "Navigation in South China Sea ‘not a problem’",China Daily, October 23, 2010.
[4] Some research faculty of Rand and APCSS raised this concern at the round-table discussions on the South China Sea with the Chinese Delegation in September 2010.
[5] Shicun WU, Nong HONG, presentation and discussion at round-table discussions on the South China Sea with CNA, Rand, East and West Center, APCSS of United States in September 2010.
[6] Li Jinming, Li Dexia, “The Dotted Line on the Chinese Map of the South China Sea: A Note”, Ocean Development & International Law, 34:287–295, 2003.